10. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, directed by Sidney Lumet)
Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, Pacino creates one of the great characters in cinema in Sonny. He's smart, paranoid, angry, confused, and Pacino allows him to feel like a real life person, even though there's not a bit of what we think of as Al Pacino in the performance. Mannerisms, voice, everything is Sonny. Sarandon deservedly got nominated for an Oscar for his brief role, which is just as hilarious and tragic as Pacino's. Lumet's as always subtle work is phenomenal, as the lack of music makes things feel more real, ratcheting up the tension, and he keeps us inside with Sonny rather than spending too much time outside with the police. I thought it was a tad too long when I first saw it, but on a recent re-watch I didn't feel that at all.
9. Don’t Look Now (1973 directed by Nicolas Roeg)
A psychological workout on many levels, even the infamous sex scene is wrought with layers of meaning as it cuts between Sutherland and Christie in bed and the couple getting dressed for dinner, also mimicking other time jumping cuts that director Roeg only lets us realize are happening at the last (and most emotionally impactful) minute. The sex scene was reportedly so intense even during filming that stories have gone over the years that it was not simulated, much to the anger of Christie's boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty. Sutherland insists that it was not only fake, but choreographed by Roeg sitting behind the camera calling out what he wanted each of them to do while filming.
So much more than its famous sex scene, in 2011 Don't Look Now was voted by UK magazine Time Out as the #1 British movie of all time. It drips with foreboding atmosphere and like all great horror movies, works on your mind, not with blood and cheap thrills.
8. Annie Hall (1977, directed by Woody Allen)
Miraculously winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress (miraculous because this was the year of Star Wars, after all), I think Woody and the gang deserved it. It's hilarious from start to finish, whether Woody is evoking Grouch Marx ("I'd never be a member of a club who'd someone like me as a member"), fearing for his life as Annie's crazy brother (played by an insanely young Christopher Walken) might kill them, or breaking the fourth wall and giving us in the audience little asides from the plot. My favorite is actually one with a hint of melancholy, where Alvy (Allen's character) tries to recreate different crazy antics he'd had with Annie with a new girl after he and Annie broke up, only to have the new girl not join in and him realize how special Annie was.
It was a turning point for Allen, as his next works became more serious, or at least were not silly, giving rise to the often uttered "I liked his earlier, funnier movies better." Not me, I think he only got better and better as a filmmaker, even if I think he never bettered this masterpiece.
7. Chinatown (1974, directed by Roman Polanski)
Because of its downbeat and uncompromising take on the noir genre, Chinatown is a movie that subverts your expectations and therefore sticks out and grows in your mind in a way that most other crime thrillers don't. Robert Towne deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the movie's only win in a year dominated by The Godfather part II), but it was reportedly Polanski who came up with the film's famous ending. This was just a few years after his wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by the Manson family, and was his first time shooting in LA since then, something he only agreed to because of the extraordinary strength of the script and his wish to work with friend Jack Nicholson. Sadly, it would be Polanski's last American film, as he would have his famous legal troubles just 3 years after Chinatown's release. It's a hell of a great American movie though.
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)
There's much debate among Python fans as to whether this or their subsequent movie, the controversial Biblical tale Life of Brian, is superior. For me it's easy. Life of Brian obviously benefited from the Pythons experience making this movie, as it's more professional looking and was made on a significantly higher budget. It's a good movie, with many hugely hilarious and wonderfully quotable lines. But it's no Holy Grail. Holy Grail is the best comedy of the 70's, and if you don't believe me, I shall be forced to taunt you a second time.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The nightmare of the movie is the long trip down river as Willard comes across Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) bombing a Vietnamese village so they can get the good surfing waves there, a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies, and unseen attackers as they get closer and closer to the hell of Kurtz's compound where he lectures Willard on war, humanity, and civilization as his fool (a photographer played by Dennis Hopper) babbles on about Kurtz's greatness. It's all so tragic, yet hallucinogenic enough that you're not really sure what Willard will do once he gets to the compound. That's also based on Brando's divisive work as Kurtz. It was among the first works of Brando I saw and I was completely spellbound as he captured my attention like few other actors ever had. I was fascinated by every single (sometimes nonsensical) word. Some say he was lazy and bloated, I say he's brilliant. Sheen too is terrific as Willard, and all of the supporting cast is wonderful.
But even Brando doesn't steal the spotlight from the movie itself, which is so epic even when feeling so singularly personal and emotional. There are also so many things about it that work like a lot of 70's cinema does for me, which is like music. You can't always quite describe why one thing is particularly better than another, but you feel it in your gut. "The horror... the horror..." sticks with you like all the great closing lines do, maybe because there are so many things the phrase could be applied to in the movie. Maybe because it's the great final notes in an incomparable symphony.
4. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, directed by Werner Herzog)
Kinski's work as a crazy man may not have been great acting, as by all accounts Kinski was every bit a barely controlled crazy man. Still, his work succeeds on screen in giving us a descent into delusion and a frenzy of blood as he becomes single minded in his tragic quest for the golden city. The perfect compliment to his erratic star, Herzog's gift of telling stories by not seeming to tell stories is a singular gift. His films unfold as if they're not at all planned, but we never doubt we're in the hands of a master who knows where he's taking us. Herzog's habit of not storyboarding his shots leads not to messy shooting (though a low budget movie like this has a bit of that too) but of found, seemingly accidental awe inspiring visuals. The opening shot of thousands of people marching down one hill and up another in the dangerous looking jungles of Ecuador is one of the great shots in movies, as is the closing shot. Aguirre alone in his madness, surrounded by chattering monkeys, muttering to himself on a raft, the camera slowly circles him as he leaves the screen, but not our memories. Not anytime soon anyway, this movie sticks with you for a while.
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, directed by Steven Spielberg)
I loved the movie when seeing it as a kid, but watching as an adult, I wonder why. It's actually not a very fast paced movie, with much of the time being spent watching Dreyfuss think and try to figure out what he's going to do, or with French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (legendary director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter (Bob Balaban) as they go on a similar chase for knowing the unknown. But I bet the seeds for my fascination in first contact were sown when I saw the powerful final section of this movie, where the Mothership shows up and we finally make our contact. It's a transcendent piece of filmmaking, awe inspiring and impressive on both a technical and storytelling level, the special effects are so prominent but always serve to better the story. I also love that we see the aliens, but they never speak nor directly communicate, and watching the original theatrical cut, we don't see inside their ships nor do we ever understand what they want. There's something I always liked about that.
A side note that I enjoy: what communication we do get from the aliens is done through music, and eventually through computers playing musical sequences in a repeated pattern. When on the show Inside the Actors Studio, it was pointed out to Spielberg that the aliens communicate through computers and music, while Spielberg's mother was a music teacher and his father a computer scientist. He was happily appreciative of that being pointed out to him, as it was coincidence and had never occurred to him until then.
2. Taxi Driver (1976, directed by Martin Scorsese)
We follow Travis on his journey to becoming that rain to wash scum off the streets, but before we get there he meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old prostitute. He eventually takes it upon himself to be the savior of these two women, the fact that neither seems to want saving being irrelevant to Travis. The most disturbing thing about the finale of Taxi Driver is that after Travis kills a bunch of low life creeps, he's hailed in the media as a hero trying to clean up the city, while we who've been with him know that he was simply a ticking time bomb who went off, it just happened to be directed at these people (don't buy from anyone that everything after the shootout is a dream, that's bullshit). Travis saves his news clippings, and a letter from Iris's parents, but the final scene plays a strange noise as Travis looks in his rearview mirror at Betsy. To me this has always been the sound of the time bomb starting to tick down again.
It's a hauntingly lonely and disturbing movie that I can't shake for days each time I watch it. In the best possible way, and in a way that few movie have ever affected me.
1. The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Marlon Brando's work gets better every time I watch this movie, and ditto Al Pacino. The scenes between the two of them are electric in their greatness, as Brando's Vito Corleone cedes power of his mafia family to Pacino's Michael. Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Talia Shire, they're all wonderful. But to me the movie comes down to the operatic execution of the amazing script from Coppola and the novel's author Mario Puzo (one of the movie's only 3 Academy Awards), and those two lead performances from Pacino and Brando. Of course, you could praise everything from Gordon Willis's influential photography (for which the master somehow didn't even get nominated for an Oscar) to the flawless production and costume design, Nino Rota's famous score, everything. It's one of the most thoroughly well made movies I've ever seen.
But none of that would make The Godfather as esteemed as it is if it wasn't so layered, powerful, and damn entertaining to watch. There's a reason so many people consider it the best movie ever made. I have to watch it every once in a while and I never fail to love it even more than I did the last time.